Every day we have many decisions and choices to make. Dr. Sheena Iyengar, a social psychologist who is a professor of business at Columbia Business School, surveyed 2000 Americans and found that the average American makes about 70 choices in a typical day. I’m sure Canadians are not much different. What time will you get up in the morning, what will you wear, what will you eat today, will you go to your class today or is it better to spend that time working on a paper, what will you write the paper on, when and how much will you study for exams, will you go out with friends this evening or stay home…? Then there are the many larger decisions that must be made periodically – what courses should you take next year, what program should you be in?
We like to have choices. We are happy to live in a democratic country where we have much freedom to choose. But, researchers have found that people differ in their ability to come to a decision about a choice. According to psychologist, Barry Schwartz, some of us are maximizers and some of us are satisficers, when it comes to choosing.
Maximizers are those people who refuse to settle on a choice until they are sure it is the very best one. They put a lot of thought into their decisions, sometimes endlessly researching options and often second-guessing the choices they make, while looking for the optimal decision. They will not decide before they feel that they have seen all of the options, even if they have already found one that meets their criteria. It can take a long time to make a decision, and, sometimes, they never get to a decision, having what has been referred to as “analysis paralysis”.
Satisficers also carefully assess their options but, unlike maximizers, are content with settling for the option that is “good enough”. The goal of a satisficer is to make the decision that is “acceptable” for her needs, and meet her requirements. Although a satisficer does have criteria and standards when deciding, she is not worried about the possibility that there may be something better out there.
A maximizer might go to every shoe store in the mall to find the perfect pair of shoes, whereas the satisficer is content to buy the first pair that is “good enough” according to their standards (e.g., comfort and appearance). A maximizer spends countless hours researching a topic for their presentation, not wanting to miss the one perfect book or article on the subject. A satisficer looks for enough material that will let her get the work done. Maximizers are always searching for the better essay topic, the bigger bargain, the nicer boyfriend.
The irony, though, is that maximizers, despite the extra work they put into their decision, are not necessarily content, even after they’ve made a choice. Because of the great effort they’ve put into weighing their alternatives before making their selection, their expectations for making the perfect choice are higher. So, they may end up being disappointed when their decision is not perfect and they are susceptible to regretting their decisions. “Is this really the best I could have done or would another decision have been better?”.
The satisficer doesn’t worry about the possibility that there might be something better. A satisficer is content with her choice. She will be satisfied with the option chosen even if it isn’t the very best option there might have been.
Research shows that satisficers are consistently happier and more satisfied than maximizers. Satisficers get more done because they don’t use as much time and energy on decisions that aren’t that important, when one looks at the bigger picture.
Maximizing is related to lower optimism and lower life satisfaction, and more anxiety and depression. For example, Schwartz found that maximizers, though they earn higher salaries, are less satisfied with their jobs. Maximizing requires much time and energy. It creates a lot of unnecessary stress, and takes any joy out of the process of making a choice.
Of course, in reality, no one is completely one or the other all the time (some decisions we make quickly; for others, we deliberate at length). But psychologists do have some suggestions for maximizers:
- Save the energy involved in maximizing for those one or two decisions that are very important and settle for “good enough” for the other decisions that you have to make. Some things need to be done perfectly; most things don’t. Since there are a lot of decisions to be made in life, it’s reasonable to expect that “you’ll win some and you’ll lose some”.
- Recognize that, even when all of the options are laid out in front of you, you’ll likely have to make trade-offs because few options are going to be best in all respects. Decide on some important criteria and pick the first option that matches your criteria. Don’t let the trade-offs lead you to conclude that you made the wrong choice. Remember that there is often more than one “right” decision in any situation.
- Focus on appreciating what you have, the positive aspects of your choice, rather than worrying about what you might have had. Enjoy the benefits of the decision rather than worrying whether the decision was “the right one”.
- When you make a decision, recognize that it’s the best decision for you at that moment with the information that you have. In most cases, it is possible to change a decision at a later time if new information becomes available.
- Arbitrarily limit the number of choices you’ll consider and set reasonable time limits for how long you’ll search, so your decision-making process is done in a realistic amount of time. Don’t seek out too many other people’s opinions; that will just add to the options you need to consider.
Take care, and work on finding “good enough”!
This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.